In this part of Canada, a few kilometres north of Toronto, Eastern Bluebirds usually show up sometime between the middle and end of March. I had to keep reminding myself of this today as I and three colleagues from the Cold Creek Forest & Wildlife Area Stewardship Committee tramped around for 2 1/2 hours, cleaning out bird houses. It was about -2Celsius, with a nasty wind, and snow from yesterday's storm that was often above our knees. We made excellent time and did a did a pretty good job, I thought. The four of us are in our fifties and sixties, reasonably active, but we found carrying tools and step-ladders over Cold Creek's frozen fields and wetlands, rather gruelling. At the end I was describing Cold Creek as 'No Country for Old Men' and my birdbox buddies agreed.
It's hard to imagine how bluebirds can survive in this weather, but there are hundreds of them strung out along the north shore of Lake Erie, existing on wild berries or things put out on bird feeders like suet, raisins or even live mealy worms. There is no guarantee that this diet has or will keep them all alive. But those that do survive have an incredible urge to get on the breeding and nesting grounds early. Being a timid bird, by nature, bluebirds like to occupy nests early, rather than fight for spots later.
They take huge chances by arriving early because the wild berry supply at Cold Creek may not be sufficient to tie them over to the appearance of insects. Once as common as robins are today, these little thrushes were in great decline in the mid-to-late 1900s (blame habitat destruction and competition for nesting sites from house sparrows and starlings), but are making a comeback. The building and placing of bluebird birdhouses has been a big part of the turnaround in numbers.
Here's what Joan Rattner Heilman, in her book, Bluebird Rescue, begins with: "With their radiant blue feathers, soft round bodies, appealing little faces, and gentle manner, bluebirds have come to symbolize hope, happiness, springtime, and love. More songs were written about them than about any other bird in our history, and one famous writer, Henry David Thoreau, said that bluebirds carry the sky on their backs.
It's a joy to help these beautiful, little birds, but my Cold Creek pals and I must get around to cleaning out the boxes in October - not March!